Story: Italians

Page 1. Leaving Italy

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Conditions in Italy

For about 100 years from the 1870s, the emigration of the Italian people was one of the greatest movements from a single country in modern history.

Throughout the latter part of the 19th century, many people in Italy were living in desperate poverty and faced a bleak future. In the 1870s, a quarter of all children died in their first year, and two-thirds of the population was illiterate. Suffering from overcrowding, a lack of arable land, natural disasters and localised wars, the unemployed and the landless saw emigration as a matter of survival.

Between 1876 and 1900, up to 300,000 set off each year in search of ‘la bella fortuna’ (good fortune). They went first to other European centres, but later established major settlements in America, Canada, South America and Australia.

A comparatively thin stream of migrants found their way to New Zealand, often by chance or after trying their luck in Australia.


There are numerous examples of an affinity between Māori and Italians:

The family of early settler Salvatore Cimino were made honorary members of the Ngāti Raukawa tribe.

There are more than 2,000 Māori–Italian descendants of the Māhia lighthouse keeper Nicolas Sciascia and his wife Riria McGregor.

In 1896 the missionary Dom Felice Vaggioli published a commentary on British exploitation of Māori.

Māori and Italians worked together on Tūrangi’s Rangipō tunnel during the 1970s, and a number of Italians married Māori women.

A higher proportion of Italians than of any other New Zealand ethnic group identify their second ethnicity as Māori.

First arrivals

The first Italian to reach New Zealand shores was Antonio Ponto, who sailed on the Endeavour with Lieutenant James Cook in 1769.

Immigrants who arrived up until the 1890s were mostly young single men. Some took up residence, but others often set sail again. One of the earliest settlers was Salvatore Cimino, a shipping trader from Capri who arrived about 1839. He was married twice, to New Zealand women, and had close ties with Māori, including Te Rauparaha.

How to cite this page:

Tessa Copland, 'Italians - Leaving Italy', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by Tessa Copland, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2015